I know what "three feet to pass" means. I know many motorists understand the concept because I've heard and read complaints about the "hardships" imposed on motorists while attempting to grudgingly comply with the three feet to pass law.
I have witnessed motorists passing from .0003 microns to 12-15 feet. From my long experience sharing the roads with cars (also grudgingly) I am well aware that many motorists believe that as long as they don't make contact with a cyclist or pedestrian (or dog, mailbox or any other inanimate object) that they have done no wrong. I'm here to say that giving space to non-motorists goes beyond a three feet to pass law or avoiding physical contact.
Yesterday morning approaching the last four way stop before NREL a man yakking on a cell phone while "driving" a Toyota FJ Cruiser cut me off within a couple of car lengths of the stop sign. I rolled to an angry stop less than three feet from his rear bumper. I made eye contact with him in his rear view mirror and then held up three fingers in the beam of our locked gazes. Then I made the "hang up your phone" gesture and believed the issue settled.
Of course he didn't. He started to get out of the car, but as soon as he had both feet on the pavement the SUV started to roll forward without him, perhaps making a bold statement. He jumped back in to put the car in park as I rolled into the left lane to go on through the intersection. "Have a nice day!" I called as I passed the middle aged, soft-bellied man wrestling with his gas-powered wheel chair.
I knew he would pass me again before we reached the entrance to NREL so I was ready, but what I didn't anticipate was his response. He rolled up slowly beside me in the right lane and in a thick eastern European accent started blabbering about how he had given me plenty of room when he had passed. I assured him he had not and he kept trying to argue that he had given me plenty of room. Finally I just said pointedly: "Just hang up your phone and drive!" and turned off toward the dirt path as he continued into NREL.
I don't think he is a bad man. In fact, I wouldn’t even try to make the argument that he's a bad driver. I think he has a poor perception of how much space his behemoth takes up on the road. And that's where I think the crux of the problem lies in most cases. Its not that most motorists necessarily want to see how close they can get without killing a cyclist as they pass. I think instead that they just don’t have a concept of how big their machine is and how much road they’re taking up. The man yesterday morning seemed to truly believe he had been doing me a favor when he passed. But instead of going completely into the left lane he only half-heartedly eased over and then cut back into the right lane too soon. I think motorists fail to realize that bikes are moving with some speed down the road.
I don’t know of an easy solution to this conundrum. How do you instill in people a better concept of how much space they take up and how much space other people need? Obviously the NREL man and I have differing opinions about how much space a cyclist needs on the road.
So what does "three feet to pass" mean in real terms? After Colorado passed the law recently I remember hearing public testimony from a Boulder County special event involving bikes (the Sunrise Century I think) where residents of the canyon where the ride was going to occur complained that immediately after the law passed cyclists started riding up the canyon with yardsticks attached to their bikes. The problem for the motorists was that it prohibited them from passing the cyclists because if they had to maintain three feet to pass then there was no way they could do so legally on the canyon's curvy narrow roads.
While I understand their arguments, I can sympathize because I know cyclists don’t always consider the timing of their rides on bad roads, I ultimately don't think it matters if motorists agree with the law or not, or believe they should have to give cyclists room or not. There is no reason I motorist should pass closer than what is safe FOR THE CYCLIST. But then again, there is not a good reason to take a recreational ride up a tight, twisty canyon at rush hour when people just want to get home. Of course, you may be commuting, and then you ride when you have to ride. And that's why I believe ultimately the onus is on motorists not to kill cyclists. It would be really hard for a bicyclist to crash their bike into a car and kill the motorist inside.
For me, three feet doesn’t always feel like enough space between my bare legs and the fender of a speeding car. If the car is traveling less than 20 miles an hour then three feet of space is reasonably adequate, assuming the motorist isn’t texting, fiddling with the radio or snoozing. But when a car passes you on your bike at a high rate of speed even ten feet doesn’t feel like enough. So sometimes three feet isn’t enough, and I've been passed more than once by cars traveling extremely fast and extremely close to me.
It seems most motorists assume if they keep the car between the lines (mostly), don’t hit anything with their car and if they don’t get caught driving five miles an hour over the speed limit then they are doing their civic duty and should not be forced to slow down, move over or actually pay attention to the road ahead, beside or behind them. I (in)frequently drive myself, and have done so for about 21 years now. I think I am qualified to make this statement with some authority as a motorist. Its human nature. Its how we're wired. Our minds ease past the boundaries and ratchet up our comfort levels as long as there are no obstructions to that movement. If we get a ticket, we slow down. If we crash into a telephone pole we pay more attention to the road…for a little while.
The bottom line is this: there is a "three feet to pass" law and no matter what a person believes, the law should be followed. Common courtesy and common sense would say give more room or slow down to pass. Nothing is so important to justify injuring or killing a cyclist.